For almost two decades I have been involved in some form or another in the research or policy development for improving the life outcomes of Tasmanians. In more recent times, my area of interest has shifted to focus on the role that education plays in peoples’ life opportunities, particularly around employment. I know, as many others also do, that low levels of education prevent people from participating in both the economy and society and that people with low levels of education also experience higher instances of poor health, mental illness, dysfunctional relationships and alienation. Raising the level of educational attainment in Tasmania is viewed as both the economic and social panacea the state so desperately needs. While various programs and policies have ensued, the impact has been marginal at best. Admittedly, however, generational change can take decades.
These marginal results raise the question as to what can actually be done to change the trajectory of many Tasmanians’ lives, now?
It wasn’t until I had my son – who has severe speech and language impairments – 9 years ago that I truly started to comprehend the links between the importance of communication and language development in infancy and childhood in developing life-long literacy skills and the opportunity to participate in education, employment and society.
Language is the currency of education and is the best early indicator of successful life outcomes. Language is associated with reading ability, high school graduation rates, health outcomes and income. Therefore, children who start out with lower language skills are projected to have lower school readiness scores and will follow a dampened trajectory through school and life. Various studies also affirm a large disparity between both the amount and quality of language used by children by socio-economic status.
Participating in the November 2018 Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium with 54 other Tasmanians with a passion, expertise, interest and/or a commitment to improving Tasmanian’s literacy and socio-economic outcomes provided the forum to hold a dialogue about our aspirations for the future direction of our state. At the conclusion of the amazing day, we collectively agreed to set a target of 100% literacy for the state.
However, before we come up with a solution to improving our education and literacy levels we need to understand the cause/s. Many of the symposium participants shared stories of both personal and professional experiences of afflictions such as disability, trauma, socio-economic status, indigeneity and poverty on educational and life outcomes, highlighting the complexities associated with language and literacy development for Tasmanians. Commonly suggested initiatives to improving educational outcomes such as providing more teaching support staff in primary schools and reducing class sizes are important and may be some of the solutions, as would investing more in pre-school services. However, a more nuanced approach to the complexities of language and literacy impairment for individuals would likely provide a greater, and measurable, outcome.
My professional and personal belief, to really improve the life outcomes of Tasmanians through greater levels of education, and more specifically, to really disrupt our low socio-economic trajectory, is that we need to move beyond just programs to intervene directly to improve language development. We need to understand the prevalence, and cause, of language and learning disorders and disabilities and treat the cause, in school. This can be achieved through increased provision, and expansion of scope, of speech and language therapists and communication specialists in schools to work with both children and teachers and support staff.
Quoting Rosie Martin directly, “Speech pathologists have expertise in teaching language to the language-impaired. They already bring excellent, specifically-targeted language support in schools across the state. But their services are under-resourced, and many structural factors constrain them from bringing the fullness of their professional knowledge to Tasmanian students. The sports car is being driven to the corner store in first gear. There is much more grunt under the bonnet.”
All children can learn to communicate, all children can learn to read and write and become literate. Not only is it important for Tasmanians’ life outcomes, it is urgent. The target of 100% literacy set at the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium is achievable, provided there is commitment and collaborative effort to deliver the best intervention. The collective will from the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium suggests it is time to explore the possibilities.
Lisa Denny is a demographer and a Research Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. Over the past twenty years Lisa has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience in both private industry and the public sector in Tasmania.
Lisa was an attendee at the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy symposium at Government House in November 2018 and wrote this opinion piece in follow-up to it. It was first published in The Mercury on May 23rd 2019.
Colleagues @ The Heart of Literacy, on June 21st in Hobart, follows on from the Government House symposium. It will show method by which to increase language skills in classrooms. Find out more here. And register here.